Russia Cracks Down on News Reports, Sharply Reversing ‘Openness’

By Irem Ozturan
An image from RetroReport

News organizations including The New York Times said they were halting operations in Russia after President Vladimir Putin signed a new censorship law last Friday. Fearing prosecution, independent Russian news outlets also announced they were shutting down.

Putin has long enforced authoritarian rule and tight grip on the news media, but the new law marked a clear departure from glasnost (Russian for “openness”), a government policy implemented in 1986 by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Media censorship had been a defining feature of the Soviet Union since the days of Joseph Stalin. Under glasnost, a series of reforms lifted restrictions on free speech. Censorship was significantly relaxed, and literature that previously had been banned was permitted. News media outlets were allowed to openly criticize policy failures of past leaders and even expose the horrors of the repressive Stalin regime.

Today, glasnost is seen by experts as a well-intentioned but unsuccessful effort to revive and reform the Soviet Union. At the least, it didn't go as Gorbachev planned.

When Gorbachev came to power in the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union was in a period of economic stagnation and declining living standards. To achieve economic recovery, he first implemented economic reforms known as perestroika, or “restructuring.” Understanding that economic reforms were impossible to implement under the current political and social landscape, he then went on to introduce glasnost.

Gorbachev's reform efforts, meant to economically revive the Soviet Union, instead led to its dissolution. The loosening of controls over mass media and the freedom to form organized associations fostered nationalist movements and a demand for more democracy. Several Soviet republics began to demand independence, including the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, led by Boris Yeltsin, who pushed for market reforms, actual democracy and Russian sovereignty. In 1991, the leaders of three of the Soviet Union's largest republics, which later became Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, declared their nations' independence.

Glasnost faded amid the political and economic chaos of the 1990s, and in the early 2000s, Putin's government launched a systematic crackdown on free press.

Today, under Putin's new law, it is illegal to publish “false information” about what Mr. Putin calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Violators face up to 15 years in prison.

“Russia's new legislation seeks to criminalize independent, accurate news reporting about the war against Ukraine,” a rep for The New York Times said in a statement. “For the safety and security of our editorial staff working in the region, we are moving them out of the country for now.”

Global media companies are among many that have been pulling out of Russia in recent weeks following the invasion of Ukraine. McDonald's, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Starbucks were among the latest large corporations to suspend operations in Russia this week.

IREM OZTURAN, an intern at Retro Report, is a journalism and economics student at Northwestern University. This article first appeared in Retro Report's free weekly newsletter. Subscribe and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.